Saturday, August 18, 2012

27th Precinct Book Club—Serial Slayers

Chelsea Cain, Kill You Twice

Detective Lammers needed a slug of lukewarm precinct coffee to bolster himself before walking into the waiting room. Hargreave was waiting out there. The man was an excellent source of information, but talking to him always took all the courage Lammers could muster. His training officer claimed he’d been allowed to fortify his coffee with bourbon. Sounded like a story.

Ah, well, no sense prolonging it. Lammers took a threadbare chair opposite Hargreave. “Whaddya got for me?”

Hargreave reached into his attachĂ© with an inscrutable grin. “Just one this time. The new one from Chelsea Cain.”

“That ex-hippie who keeps turning up on the bestseller chart?”

“The same one.” Hargreave tossed the book to Lammers. “This is the fifth in her Beauty Killer series, which is a naked rip-off of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels. But don’t let that fool you. She’s actually a good writer, with a strong focus on character and psychological nuance. When you read the books, it feels like you’ve read this story before, but somehow, the characters remain new enough to be interesting.”

Lammers riffled idly through the pages. “So this one is a serial killer drama?”

“Don’t focus on the killer,” Hargreave said. “If you treat this like a cop drama, you’ll feel like you’ve read this before, which you have. In terms of the mystery aspect, Cain’s novels are really ordinary and derivative. But if you read this like a character drama set against a crime background, you have a smart, intriguing ensemble who push each other to reveal strange and powerful personalities.”

“I know a little about the story,” Lammers said. “Gretchen Lowell is a sadistic genius, and Archie Sheridan is the cop she’s obsessed with. Though she’s locked up, she has the power in the relationship, and demonstrates it through repeated breakouts. Nobody knows what to do with her, in part because nobody knows who she really is.”

“Bingo,” Hargreave said with a smile. “Have you read them?”

“The first one was a lukewarm market grab, the second was actually damned good, and the third one rambled without a clear sense of purpose.”

“The fourth book?”

“Missed that one.”

“Well, you can jump into this one without it. Cain takes the time to explain what you might have missed. This time, Gretchen is under sedation and restraint, so when a killer uses her sgnature on locals, everyone knows it can’t be her. But then she calls Archie into her cell and asks him to intervene, because she thinks this new killer is after the child nobody knew she had.”

Lammers rubbed his chin. “So the torturer asks a favor from the man she tortured?”

“More than that. The woman who holds power by refusing to open herself up, opens herself up. This makes us wonder who Gretchen really is, and if her expression of ultimate evil might just be a cover to protect herself from something even darker. To put it another way, how can the sins of the past torment a person who has no past?”

“So I take it we start to get a glimpse at who Gretchen Lowell really is.”

“Yes, no, maybe so,” Hargreave said, flashing a theatrical shrug. “Gretchen lies with such intricate aggression that we never know what’s true. Then, as the story goes along, clues conflict with her story, suggesting the killer is no mere psychopath; he may be a time bomb Gretchen herself set running when she realized she’d be at somebody else’s mercy. Especially when the bomb starts to go off, and she demands quid pro quo for information.”

Lammers shook his head. “I don’t care for novelists who make crime so complicated. Most crime is banal—even murder usually has perfectly ordinary motivations.”

“Like I said, you can’t read it like a crime novel.” Hargreave leaned in and tapped the hardback with two fingers. “This is a story about characters who push each other to the limits of human endurance. They expose each other’s weaknesses, but they also provoke each other to go further and do more. Even Gretchen in her psychosis turns out to have superhuman qualities. She just uses them to kill people.”

Lammers tucked the book under his arm. “I think we’ll give this one a try.”

“Good choice,” Hargreave said. “It may be a bombastic, implausible premise, but if you read it the right way, the rewards hit you in subtle ways.”

“Good enough,” Lammers said, rising. “Now get out of my station house, you lowlife pissant.”

Also in this series:
Evil at Heart
The Night Season

See also:
27th Precinct Book Club—Nicely Noir

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